Six immigrant stories tell the promises and pitfalls of the American dream

by blissketoreviews

Phung Luong still loves wandering the aisles of Truong An Gifts, a sprawling shop in Denver she runs with her daughter Mimi. She likes to take the time to touch the merchandise in its carefully spaced rows of shelves, on which an array of gifts sits with all the colors of thrown confetti.

Red-and-gold firecracker decorations dangle over green stalks of bamboo. Her fingers graze a glittery hairpin, butterfly shaped, and she adjusts a couple of rabbit figurines with button noses. Happy Buddha statues laugh, bellies round and gold.

“In my heart, all the things have feeling, have life,” Ms. Luong says. “They’re happy with you. They bring you business.”

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America is often called “a nation of immigrants.” On the national July Fourth holiday, we share stories of those who experienced the yearnings behind the idea of the American dream.

For over 40 years, the life of this refugee from Vietnam has been devoted to building small businesses. That’s a classic part of what is often called the American dream, the idea that anyone, from anywhere, can work hard and find success within the country’s rungs of wealth and homeownership. 

Ever since her childhood in Vietnam, Ms. Luong was organized. The eldest of eight children, she oversaw the budgeting and buying of food for her family. This helped prepare her as she became a determined if struggling small-business owner in America.

“You cannot go back,” Ms. Luong says. “You need to build your dream here.”

When she was a teenager, she and her family waited a few years after the 1975 fall of Saigon before they found a way to leave. Her family first fled to Hong Kong, securing passage on a boat. The young Ms. Luong clutched only what she could bring: a pillowcase of clothes – and an address in Denver.

Sarah Matusek/The Christian Science Monitor

“You cannot go back. You need to build your dream here.” – Phung Luong, small-business owner at the historic Far East Center in Denver, which is owned and run by her family. Ms. Luong settled in Colorado with her family after the fall of Saigon in Vietnam. She admires firecracker decorations at Truong An Gifts, a store she runs with her daughter Mimi.

Her cousin slipped her the address of a family from Colorado. It belonged to his best friend’s family, Vietnamese refugees who’d already settled in the state. Within a year, this family became Ms. Luong’s family, too. She married one of her host’s cousins, a grocery-store stocker with an ambition to match her own. 

Americans were nursing moral bruises from the Vietnam War. Ms. Luong felt alienated, unable to express herself. It was difficult to learn new ways. Even simple things, such as how burritos look like, but are not, egg rolls.

But at the same time, she worked hard. She helped her husband and his brothers run a specialized Asian grocery store. She worked as a hairstylist for a while. And then she opened a business of her own, a video store that her daughter Mimi called the “Asian Blockbuster.” Like other American business owners, she struggled after going bankrupt when business ventures didn’t work out.

But now, a naturalized citizen, Ms. Luong has become a literal part of American history. Her extended family’s small businesses eventually became an entire shopping plaza in Denver’s Little Saigon district, which they named the Far East Center. Earlier this year, the state of Colorado placed the Luong family plaza on its Register of Historic Properties, noting it has “significant cultural resources worthy of preservation.”

For decades, generations of Denver residents have stepped up to the plaza’s counters – including here at Truong An Gifts, Ms. Luong says.

“If you’re not happy, no problem,” she says. “Come to my shop.”

“A nation of immigrants”

The idea of the American Dream has been woven into the country’s self-understanding. It is a national myth that expresses part of the country’s deepest values about class mobility, the value of hard work, and the promise that here, in America, owning a home or a business is a real possibility like nowhere else. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

Immigrants take part in a naturalization ceremony to become U.S. citizens, May 22, in Boston. Said Moura, from Egypt, brims with emotion during the Pledge of Allegiance.

A historian popularized the phrase on the heels of the Great Depression, says Sarah Churchwell, chair of public humanities at the University of London. At first, it didn’t really connote the immigrant experience. But after World War II, many began to use “the American dream” to express the country’s economic values and contrast them with its communist rivals. 

The phrase was a “particular version of capitalist, liberal democracy as a land of opportunity … a story about how we have always welcomed immigrants,” says Professor Churchwell. 

Of course, this Cold War narrative, she adds, dismissed a century of anti-immigrant, restrictive policies that “got written out of the popular story that we told about ourselves.” From 1875 to 1965, for example, most immigrants from Asia, people like Ms. Luong and her family, were refused entry and largely forbidden to become naturalized citizens.   

This side of American history includes the forced removal of Native American people from their lands to make way for European immigrants, as well as the forced migration of enslaved Africans. Beginning in the 19th century, immigrants from Ireland and Italy and others from the eastern parts of Europe were often met with prejudice, if not determination to stifle their efforts to build a life for their families.

The country has not always lived up to the bronze plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty – “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Many have long felt uneasy about these huddled masses, especially those arriving across the U.S. southern border today.

Many Americans rank immigration as a top issue heading into the 2024 election. The issue feeds into white-hot partisan politics. Historically high numbers of unauthorized immigrants during the Biden administration have brought costs and safety concerns to many communities. And in an era of political polarization, the collaborative spirit needed to pass major immigration reform has eluded Congress since the 1990s.

Yet despite this ambivalence, Americans often refer to the country as “a nation of immigrants.” Today an estimated 45.3 million people in the United States were born abroad, as of 2022 estimates. That’s over an eighth of the country. More than half of these have become naturalized citizens. And according to a March poll from NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist, two-thirds of the country still views the American dream as attainable.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

Migrants who crossed into the U.S. from Mexico are detained by the Border Patrol in Jacumba Hot Springs, California, April 1, 2024.

However many generations removed, many Americans still celebrate their ethnic heritage. They still tell stories of their immigrant forebears, and the sacrifices they made. How relatives arrived years, decades, or even centuries ago. How they arrived on the country’s shores and built a life their children and grandchildren and all those who came after could continue.

“The mainstream changed quite a bit because of the contributions that immigrants made,” says Tomás Jiménez, a sociology professor at Stanford University. He calls assimilation “not some kind of melding into a monolithic host society, but a process of mutual change.” 

Ahead of America’s national holiday, the Monitor interviewed six people across six states about their immigration stories – citizens, native-born and naturalized, as well as recent arrivals. As each voice attests, the pursuit of this mythic “American dream” takes time, takes trust, takes grace.

Gathering for Irish céilí dancing

Steve Laverty, his hair swept into a low ponytail, walks into a wood-paneled room, ready to dance. His black dress shoes have leather soles that slide just right for Irish céilí dancing. 

Every Wednesday night in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Mr. Laverty gathers at a bar with a group of friends to celebrate his heritage. He’s done it for years – a welcome respite for a few unburdened hours.

Music swells to the walls, hands hold to form a circle, and bodies spin like the ceiling fans. Laughter spills across the room as they clap in time. As their feet trot toward the center of the room, Mr. Laverty lets out a yelp of joy, for what is work without play? 

Some six decades ago, Mr. Laverty shared a room with three brothers. They each got a single dresser drawer for their clothes. “We were happy,” says Mr. Laverty, then a kid in 1960s Chicopee, Massachusetts. “We didn’t know any different.” 

But their father modeled hard work, he says. He’d work eight-hour shifts at a hand-tool factory on his feet all day. Mr. Laverty’s family arrived from Ireland four generations earlier. Growing up, Mr. Laverty says his immigrant heritage didn’t mean much to him. 

Sarah Matusek/The Christian Science Monitor

“I’m white, and I think that does open doors for you that may not be available to other people.” – Steve Laverty, fifth-generation Irish American. Mr. Laverty gathers with friends to celebrate his Irish heritage with traditional céilí dancing.

Though he held his father’s work ethic in high esteem, he knew he didn’t want to toil away in a factory. His father, who didn’t study past high school, still earned enough to help pay for his college education. After getting a degree in mechanical engineering, he joined the Air Force and has served the government nearly ever since in national security jobs.

Still, despite his gains, he shoulders student loan debt, like an estimated 43 million Americans. But as his father did with him, he helped his own four children pay for college.

He started becoming interested in his heritage decades ago. Prompted by his wife, he searched through and found cousins in Ireland. He met them there in 2007.

Moving to New Mexico soon after that, he became even more curious about his history. He witnessed how many Native Americans in the state continue to revere their own ancestral roots. “The culture has become more interesting to me as I get older,” says Mr. Laverty. He goes Irish dancing twice a week, and attends a Celtic festival every year. 

Beyond this focus on his own family history, he’s contemplated his identity in other ways. The racial justice movement that emerged from the pandemic – including protests over the killing of George Floyd – brought him a new empathy for people who may confront racism he’s never known.

“I’m white, and I think that does open doors for you that may not be available to other people,” says Mr. Laverty. “I didn’t always make a lot of money, or enough money, but I always had employment.” 

Afghan refugees find a home

Munib Zuhoori was hungry to learn English as a teenager in Kabul. At the start of the millennium, he couldn’t yet access books in the language in Afghanistan. So he scavenged imported mangoes sold in crates along the road, scanning the newspapers used for padding to learn foreign words.

He used them to teach himself English, using a dictionary he had. Then, when the American military and other workers arrived after 9/11, his self-taught skills landed him work as an interpreter. He built relationships, made connections. Mr. Zuhoori needed these connections in 2021, soon after the Americans left and the Taliban retook control, and the longest war in U.S. history came to an inglorious end.

Mr. Zuhoori recalls with rapid words his years working with the U.S. Agency for International Development. His projects focused on rule of law and elections, and the work was dangerous. He says 10 of his Afghan colleagues, including members of his family, have been killed since 2021. One of his American contacts, however, helped him, his wife, and their two daughters to fly to Qatar, and then on to the U.S.

Sarah Matusek/The Christian Science Monitor

“I have to work; I have to pay my bills. … I have a big responsibility.” – Munib Zuhoori (at center-left), on why he cannot now pursue his dream to go to law school. Mr. Zuhoori stands with his wife and daughters in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, May 20, 2024. Mr. Zuhoori, who worked for the American government in Afghanistan, came to the U.S. in 2021 on a Special Immigrant Visa.

Mr. Zuhoori holds a Special Immigrant Visa because of his work for the American government. He now lives in a Pittsburgh suburb, working long hours as a refugee case manager at a local nonprofit. He is often the first face fellow Afghans see at the airport when they arrive. Then he retreats home to a quiet street, where deer saunter by. 

While he misses his extended family back home, his American dream is to go to law school. For now, however, that’s on pause. “I have to work; I have to pay my bills. … I have a big responsibility,” he says in his living room. 

He worries about his children losing their Afghan heritage, even though he is eager to build a new life here. After almost three years in the U.S., one of his daughters is starting to lose her native tongue, Dari. Earlier this year, he heard his first grader, Maryam, say the word for “sky” in Dari, but the English words “star” and “moon.” To him, it was bittersweet.

Maryam sits with a folder of sketches on her lap. She displays her drawings of a rainbow and a snowman, and a picture of people in a red car. Another sketch shows two famous Americans: Mickey and Minnie Mouse.

“Now, I think, this is my community. This is my home,” says Mr. Zuhoori, who also volunteers at his daughter’s school. “I’m trying to be a useful person.”

From past smudges to present joys

Ashley Taylor Ames, when she was a baby, used to point at the bluish smudge on Grandma Betty’s arm, her grandmother says. 

Today Ms. Ames calls Grandma Betty “the most important person in my life.” The stylish millennial works as a nurse practitioner at a Manhattan cancer center and lives in New Jersey. Her grandmother still inspires her, she says, especially with her boundless emphasis on family and on always trying to be joyful. 

The smudge on Grandma Betty’s arm is a tattoo branded on her at Auschwitz.

While in the Nazi camp, Grandma Betty was tasked to sort through the luggage of arriving prisoners. It was here, too, that members of her family were sent to gas chambers to die.  

Sarah Matusek/The Christian Science Monitor

“My grandparents … worked very hard to provide a good life for the next generation.” – Ashley Taylor Ames, a nurse practitioner, who takes in the New York City skyline from her home in Guttenberg, New Jersey. She credits her Hungarian Jewish grandmother, who survived the Holocaust, as her life’s inspiration.

After the war, now a refugee from Hungary, she sought refuge in Sweden and then in the U.S., where she settled in Connecticut. She trained as a hairdresser, learned English, and raised an American family. Aromas of her paprika-spiced potatoes and matzo ball soup greeted Ms. Ames at the front door. She still visits her every couple of weeks. 

“Everything that I do is to make her proud,” she says.

Following her grandmother’s example, she tries to recast her most difficult challenges as opportunities. In 2017, for example, she was struggling as she juggled graduate school, a full-time job, and training for the New York City Marathon. Recalling her grandmother’s resilience kept her grounded.

Sometimes at work, where she wears a white-gold Star of David, she comforts patients who receive hard news. Some of her longtime patients ask for news about Grandma Betty, too, since she talks about her all the time.

The two women have had respectful generational differences over faith and feminism. Ms. Ames keeps a kosher home but will sometimes drive on Shabbat. And while she’s felt pressure from family to marry, she’s proud of who she is as a single 30-something. She’s financially independent, at peace. She’s grateful for her upper-middle-class family’s help paying for college. 

“My grandparents and my parents worked very hard to provide a good life for the next generation,” Ms. Ames says. That conjures the Hebrew phrase l’dor vador, “from one generation to the next.” 

Along with the freedom to practice her faith, that’s the spirit of the American dream, she says. 

“We want to do good for ourselves, but better for the next generation,” she says. 

Out of Sudan to a home in Alabama

Raga always had to hide two decades ago when she was a young woman in Sudan. The Janjaweed militia in her area was known for spreading terror and raping women, so when they passed through she would bury herself under clothes, blankets, or whatever she could find. 

In the early 2000s, she joined countless other Sudanese who fled to an infamous camp for displaced people in Darfur. It offered little shelter from the horrors of war.

Born in 1988, Raga, who asked to use only her first name for privacy, lived in relative peace. Her father hung a swing from a tree. Her mother made orange juice. Without electricity, the moon shone so brightly that children could play games outside at night. They’d toss a coin or a bone, something that would shine, and then see who’d find it fastest on the moon-white ground.

Stephanie Hancock/Reuters/File

Refugees sit inside a humanitarian truck at the Chad-Sudan border, March 6, 2008, as they await transfer from the border to a refugee camp for people displaced by fighting in Sudan.

For a decade she waited in the Zamzam camp in Darfur. For seven more years she waited with her husband in Jordan. They registered with the United Nations as refugees. In 2022, an agency resettled the couple and their two young daughters in the U.S. A place called Alabama. 

They were excited when they first heard. But “when we first came, I wanted to leave,” Raga says in Arabic. She didn’t know anyone, and she was scared. 

With the help of a local resettlement agency, Inspiritus, the refugee couple secured a home and a few months of financial assistance. The nonprofit helped connect her to volunteers, and they grew into something like family, she says. When she and her husband struggled to get to the grocery store, one of their new friends gave them a gift: a used car.

The car guzzles a lot of gas, Raga says. “But we say, ‘Thank God.’” 

The weather in Sudan and Alabama, as it turns out, feels similar. The heat, the heavy rains, the lightning that cracks the sky. All the city lights in the Birmingham suburbs, though, dull the moon glow here. 

She feels happy and safe in the U.S. But once again, Raga finds herself waiting.

Learning English is a long-term goal. She dreams of opening a salon or a restaurant, but she knows that will take time. Her husband works, but their expenses outpace his modest income. She aches for her family members still in Sudan, worrying about their lack of food and medicine. She’s heartbroken that she’s unable to send them money, and that the violence endures. 

Raga finds solace in her Muslim faith. When she used to work at a church-run food pantry, she says her fellow workers didn’t object when she excused herself to pray, which she does faithfully, five times a day. 

“Religion doesn’t have a place or time,” she says. “You can do it anywhere.”

They face struggles, but Raga hopes that she and her husband can build a life in the U.S. that gives their young children a safe place to flourish. “I hope, God willing, I have all the strength to give them anything that they wish for,” Raga says. That includes a good education. 

She plays with her daughters, always addressing them in Arabic, and offers homemade orange juice to guests. The drink is sweet and silken on a warm spring day.

“I thought after being here a few months, I would be able to achieve all my dreams,” she says with a laugh. Two years have passed. “We try as hard as we can to stand on our own feet.” 

Yasmeen Othman contributed Arabic interpretation for Raga’s interview. Ms. Othman works for Inspiritus. 

Shaking off “imposter syndrome”

Marco Escobar was itching for a job at age 14. The shy Utahan wanted to buy a new jacket, a new pair of shoes, something cool. But he didn’t want to bother his cash-strapped parents. 

Then his parents dropped the truth. “We have something important to tell you,” he recalls them telling him.

Sarah Matusek/The Christian Science Monitor

“As a 14-year-old, you already don’t belong. … Here, you’re being told that you literally – technically – don’t belong.” – Marco Escobar (at center-right), on how it felt when he learned he was in the U.S. illegally when he wanted to get a job as a teen. Mr. Escobar, now a citizen, spends time with his family at his home in Herriman, Utah, Feb. 6, 2024.

Marco wasn’t an American. In fact, he was living in the U.S. illegally. His family brought him into the country as a small child in the 1980s to join his mother, who was already here. She was seeking a better future, financially, for her son. Three decades prior in 1954, an American-backed coup overthrew the country’s leader, tilting Guatemala into chaos. 

“As a 14-year-old, you already don’t belong,” Mr. Escobar says. “Here, you’re being told that you literally – technically – don’t belong.” 

The “earth-shattering” news deepened his feelings of difference. Kids at school teased him because of his secondhand clothes – and his accent, which he worked hard to change. There was also the shame of walking down the hall to claim his free meal tickets. Marco felt small next to American boys. 

Beyond the shame, however, he also remembers the generosity he experienced. Like the surprise bounty of Christmas gifts, from what may have been a youth church group. Mr. Escobar prized the orange Hot Wheels car he received that night. It proved to him, he says, “people’s goodness.”

Despite being a straight-A student, the high schooler sacrificed dreams of college. He feared that applying might somehow expose his status to the government. But he did have a love for computers, nurtured in a special high school class. Mr. Escobar brought his knack for technical troubleshooting to a job at a local car dealership, even though he was hired as a seller. Relationships he built helped him land his first tech job.

As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he says his faith helped him to be grateful as he strove to find success. 

Eventually, with the help of lawyers, he says he was able to get an employment-based green card through his father’s employer. He continued on to jobs in software and met his wife at work. In 2016, he became a citizen. 

Now in cloud software sales, he shares a spacious house with his wife and four children in mountain-flanked Herriman, Utah. He also welcomes new immigrants, many Venezuelan, as he volunteers with local nonprofits.

He still feels a kind of “imposter syndrome,” he says, a shadow he can’t shake. But he measures his success by the pairs of shoes he owns – now over 10. And he funnels a portion of his paycheck, every month, into a college fund for his kids.

“I have learned to live the American dream, even though a broken process existed for me,” Mr. Escobar says.

He eventually lost, and then replaced, the Hot Wheels car, that small engine of hope. Earlier this year, moved by hearing Mr. Escobar’s story, a neighbor bought him a mini orange convertible, too. Mr. Escobar treasures both toys – placed on his desk with pride.

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